I've been reminded this weekend how important the arts of listening, empathy, and humility are to relationships. I am often so quick to criticize- to establish a sense of pride in my self knowledge and good taste. It feels good in the moment to reap the rewards of a quick tongue and smart (aleck) attitude. But I can only control my actions and reactions- so today I choose grace and loving words over clever quips.
I am most judgmental of art/design, food/drink, and music. But the meal Keith and I ate for brunch today suspended all my judgements. New America Diner is shining a lovely, optimistic beacon of welcome in a long neglected corner of Eutaw and Franklin Streets in North Downtown/West Mount Vernon/the middle of white people whispering 'WellItsGotAGoodReputationBut CanYouReallyBeOkayGoingThereAtNightIMeanItsNotReallyInTheGreatestPartOfTownAndYouNeverKnowWhatCanHappenInThisPartOfBaltimoreCity.'
I can tell you that's it's worth it to leave your bubble for just a few blocks. Not only will you get to eat at the best breakfast spot in Baltimore, you'll also encounter some of the most amazing street art and architecture in the city. And honestly, you'll probably be completely alone the entire time.
It's a delight to enter the former Chas' Fish storefront and find a Scandinavian inspired interior that manages to actually hit the hygge mark- with hand painted signage, clean lines, wood and antique accents, and plenty of plants. It manages to be both stylish and lived in at the same time in the best way. The environment is not dissimilar to my favorite pair of thrifted Ferragamo shoes- they're well made, fit like a glove, are designer, and only cost $15. This intrepid crew's restaurant, like your favorite aunt, seems to greet you at the door with a hug and a 'I'm SO glad you stopped by!'. There are no strangers here - and the price proves it.
I'm not a brunch person. 90% of the time, anything you can make, I can make better. I am unimpressed by your pancakes and artisanially unique jams. I make tinctures like Balsamic Blackberry Blood Orange and Citrus Cardamom Chipotle for funsies, and my version of Old Black Witch's pancakes have no equal. I've conquered eggs of every style, a bad ass stuffed french toast, and my BLTs would make Kenji Lopez-Alt weep tears of joy. Come at me with your bullshit overpriced breakfasts, bro.
But today we tried three dishes from the simple but enticing menu. They ran the gamut from sweet to savory. We were delighted with the inventive takes on familiar favorites with high quality, intriguing ingredients and again, fair pricing.
First up, a brioche cinnamon roll with creme fraiche icing. It was subtly sweet with a mild tang; the ample filling melted into pillow soft pastry with an excellent crumb.
The fried green tomatoes were perfectly breaded - I hate when a deep fried vegetable's crumbing pulls away from its host. Cooked through but still firm, they were complemented by a green aioli that was bright in both taste and color. A small salad, the wild greens shimmering with a vinaigrette made our decadent meal seem the tiniest bit healthy.
Last but not least, the biscuits and gravy. Bs&Gs and I go way back. Biscuits have been my carbohydrate of choice for the last 28 years of my life or so. Drop, baking powder, Grands!, lard - I've never met a biscuit I didn't like. Like bad sex, a bad biscuit is still, at the end of the day, a relatively pleasurable thing.
Adding gravy to the mix makes things a bit more complex. Gravy is easier to mess up than biscuits: too runny and the the biscuit disintegrates. Too peppery or salty and it overwhelms the flavor profile. Easy to make lumpy or gritty with just a bit of inattention (ask me how I know) - there are lot of ways the gravy can go wrong. (thus the phrase "Good Gravy!")
Let me tell you all the ways this Biscuit and Gravy got it right: The biscuit was thick and fluffy, with enough structure to hold the hearty gravy and to stay unmelted. Gregarious chunks of sweet pork sausage peeked craggily through their veils of creamy sauce - thick and glossy, flecked with just enough pepper and red flakes - maybe pimentón ? And for some reason, a crown of tiny purple flowers scattered carelessly about, adding a whiff of pleasure and whimsy to this solid and tantalizing dish.
The service was quick, kind, and unobtrusive. The open kitchen showed unhurried, steady delivery punctuated with laughter- signs of a team moving in sync. The rough-edged vestiges of the former pescatarian paradise remain - the iron gates inside the windows, unfinished ceiling laying bare its wiring - smoothed over and sanded down with classic books, minimalist greenery, and art.
Art is hard to create and easy to critique. It's easy to tell if you don't like something, but much harder to describe why. The best designs are the ones beloved unconsciously by the general public; Apple products come to mind. I have a friend with a tattoo of his favorite designed object - the lowly paper clip. Its efficiency and outline are forever etched into the blade of his right shoulder.
And so it was with the few pieces dotting the clean white walls. Bright colors, seemingly simple shapes and designs, that softened and grew layer upon inspection. A wabi-sabi imperfect beauty that shone with earnestness, not attention to detail. Paintings that reminded me that I could do that, if I gave myself the chance.
Too often I stare at the blank canvas, accepting failure to launch over the possibility of beginning and creating something imperfect. The style, if authentic to its creator, is the beauty of the art piece. And so I stared between each blissful bite shared with my equally impressed husband (a fiercer critic than myself) at the shaky-handed outline of the art on the wall at New America.
Was this a review after the first visit? Absolutely. Am I eager to try every dish on the menu? 100%. Am I itching to go back to see how the space comes alive at night? You bet your buttons, Sally. And is there an all night happy hour on Mondays? You know it!
I left New America and that lovely neighborhood brimming with the potential and energy that only a new creation ripe with possibility can create. I believe in the strength and community that an accessible, welcoming restaurant with incredible food that many people can enjoy brings. Baltimore has good reason to be proud of her latest culinary addition. Go check it out as soon as you can!